Dubai has fast become a hot spot for a getaway. Maybe it’s because it’s only a 7 hour flight from London. Perhaps it’s the ideal winter escape. It could also be it’s perfectly placed on the world map as a stopover. Whatever the reason, it’s now it’s a case of who hasn’t been there?
I’ve got four visits under my belt over the last 17 years but it’s my latest trip where I’ve noticed the most profound changes. Dubai has been transformed into a melting pot of food, cultures, modern architecture and the most lavish and larger-than-life but if you delve a little deeper, there are some gems about this sprawling city. It’s also the one place I would not be scared to travel alone and explore. With frequent flights every day, it couldn’t be more convenient to escape to Dubai.
If you’re thinking about going or have a visit coming up soon, here are some helpful tips to get you around.
The United Arab Emirates has made it effortless when it comes to visas. British Citizens can get a visitor’s visa on arrival in the UAE which grants a stay for up to 30 days. The visa is terminated automatically on departure and a new visa issued on arrival each time the same visitor returns to the UAE. I always check the Foreign Office website for any updates and changes. I mean, Canada introduced an Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) visa only last year but not many people know that.
It’s far easier to get your money changed on arrival so don’t stress yourself out with ordering AED before departure. Get a small sum changed at the airport for taxis and then get the rest done from the dozens of places in the shopping malls. The rate is far better outside of the airport too.
The best mode of transport and very reasonable too. I stayed downtown by the Burj Khalifa and the taxi fare from the airport was about £15 for a 20 minute journey. Taxis are also very safe and you’ll find taxi ranks run like a military operation in shopping malls and at the airport with hardly any waiting time. As soon as I had walked out of the airport, I was directed to the next available taxi within a minute. Slickest system in the world ever!
- Dubai Metro
The Metro was under construction when I last went to Dubai 8 years ago so I really wanted to try this. Definitely do not miss this out even it’s just for the sheer novelty of it. It’s extremely cheap to use with fares ranging from 1.70 AED (less than 40p one way). Dubai’s public transport system (including buses and trams) only accepts a prepaid card known as a NOL card, which comes in a various formats. These can be purchased from any Metro station and like an Oyster card, you touch in and touch out to record your journey. The silver NOL card offers good value for money. It costs 25 AED and contains 19 AED worth of travel. There are currently two lines on the Dubai Metro system with more planned for the future. It’s worth downloading a Dubai Metro app for route planning.
- Where to stay
Dubai is a small city but it’s built-up, hence the endless skyscrapers and yes, more are going up. Depending on what you want to get out of your trip, there are three main areas to choose from: downtown, the Marina and the beach. All three are within easy reach of each other by taxi. I stayed in downtown Dubai because a lot of what I wanted to see and do were situated there and were therefore within easy distance by walking. The beach was 20 minutes by taxi and the Marina was 10 minutes away.Staying downtown made it accessible for food plus the Dubai Mall is home to the aquarium, the Burj Khalifa, the dancing fountain so I ticked a lot off my list. Jumeirah Beach has some beautiful beaches and the hotels there have their own private ones but if you choose to stay in the Marina, the beach is only 5 minutes away. Anywhere else and you will be spending half your stay riding around in taxis. Expect to clock up several miles on your feet – thankfully Dubai is very pedestrian friendly. I think that’s why you only see skinny people here.
- Book online to beat the queues
Whether you want to go to the Atlantis Water Park, Wild Wadi, the Burj Khalifa or the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, book your tickets in advance online to avoid the long queues. The most popular time for the Burj Khalifa is late afternoon just before sunset (around 5pm in the winter) and it’s also when the ticket prices go up but once you’re there, you can stay as long as you like. Also booking online is usually cheaper than on the door.
- Take a hot air balloon ride across the desert at sunrise
The desert safari is a very popular tourist attraction but it’s far from great. I did it years ago and the best thing was being driven around the sand dunes in a 4×4, which sadly only forms a small part of the excursion. The rest is a mediocre buffet, a lame belly dancer, dressing up and riding a camel in a small circle. Avoid! A hot air balloon ride will take your breath away and there is only one company that does this – Balloon Adventures Emirates. It is pricey but if you choose this over the other desert excursions, the splurge is worth it. You’re picked up at the crack of dawn, taken to the desert and the fight itself lasts a whole hour. It honestly is a magic carpet ride as you really are floating. Incredible feeling! There is a posh breakfast as well as a ride through the desert in a 1950’s open top jeep. Price is around £240 per person for a 5 hour experience.
- Old Dubai
Dubai isn’t just shiny tall buildings, and for a break from all that, I urge you to take a trip to the old part of Dubai. Go to Deira where the spice and gold souqs are – the taxi drivers will know where to drop you if you just say ‘Deira’. You’ll find a treasure trove of souvenir gifts there but haggle.
- The Waterbus
From Deira, hop on the waterbus for 1 AED to cross over to the other side of the creek to Bur Dubai. Apart from the balloon ride, this was my other big highlight. Immense fun for next to nothing.
- Bur Dubai
Assuming you’ve made the crossing by waterbus, explore this area where Meena Bazaar (as it’s unofficially known) is for Indian and Pakistani tailors and shops. The tailors there are so welcoming and friendly, and can stitch an outfit in 2 hours – some will even deliver it to wherever you’re staying in Dubai. Bur Dubai is also easy to get to by the Metro. The closest station is Al Fahidi and directly outside is Shahi Mughal, an amazing Indian restaurant. I am still salivating over their Paneer Karahi and Behari Kebab.
- Kite Beach
One of the best public beaches in Dubai, Kite Beach is the place for water sports (whether you’re a participant or spectator) and also has lots of food trucks and cafes if you’re feeling peckish.
- Last Exit
Speaking of food, you won’t go hungry in Dubai. All the usual suspects are here and so are the swanky ones but Last Exit is a highlight for me. It’s a food truck park serving burgers, falafel, fish and chips, hot dogs…ah, you name it, they have it. It’s fast food paradise. You might have to ask a taxi driver to wait for you as getting back from there is hard without a private car. It’s basically off a long road – exit 11 off Sheikh Zayed Road – kind of like a dual carriageway/motorway so not very public transport and taxi friendly.
- Leave Dubai for a day
…and go to Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven states that make up the United Arab Emirates. It is really for one thing – Sheikh Zayed Grand mosque. Breathtakingly beautiful, it’s worth the hour-plus journey and almost 100 mile distance. A Dubai taxi can take you there but you will need an Abu Dhabi taxi to take you back. The UAE doesn’t allow taxis from neighbouring states to operate in another. The mosque itself is free but has airport style security. Please wear something that covers legs and arms – this applies to men too but if you forget, the mosque can lend you something to cover up. Just be warned, you will have to fill in a form and give your passport details which is a hassle so use your common sense, and go prepared.
- Best time to go
October to March without a doubt – it’s their high season but the temperature doesn’t exceed around 30 degrees. If you go in July and August, it’ll be about 50 degrees – scorchio!And there you have it – my travel tips for Dubai. Don’t forget you can watch my vlogs on Dubai on my YouTube channel. If you have any questions, post them below.